The Sultan and His Janissaries. Gheorghe Hagi and the Golden Era of Galatasaray Istanbul

Octavian GABOR
Methodist College, Peoria IL
e-mail: ogaborus@gmail.com

Abstract:

In 1996, Galatasaray Istanbul made a transfer that was to change the face of Turkish football. Gheorghe Hagi, former FC Barcelona player, signed a new contract during which he helped the Turkish team to win the UEFA Cup and the European Super Cup. These performances have not been since matched by any Turkish team, although many star players came to play in this Middle Eastern country. Some may argue that the lack of success is explained by the fact that the end of the 90’s still allowed for poetry in football and that a player such as Hagi could still decide the fate of a game before it became very structured. Such people forget that the recent four years have been dominated by a poetical team, F.C. Barcelona, where players such as Messi or Xavi bring their individual, creative contribution to an already established structure. In this paper I want to propose a different take on the problem. I will explore how the culture of a certain player fits the culture of the country in which he gets transferred. Gheorghe Hagi comes from Romania, an Eastern European country not far away from Turkey. The common Balkan culture contributed, I believe, to Hagi’s adaptation to a style of football that needs a “sultan.”

Although one of the great players of the century, Hagi could not flourish during his period at Real Madrid or Barcelona, where the team is more important than any one player. In his heart and in his style of play, Hagi was always a sultan who needed his Janissaries. Galatasaray Istanbul offered him precisely that.

Keywords: sports communication, football, culture, individualism, collectivism

 

Introduction

“I am an Orthodox Christian, but I am a star among the Muslims. Not any Muslim, mind you; only those of a specific nationality: Turkish. If I really want to be precise, which is probably never a virtue in the East, I am popular among those Turks who worship a certain football team: Galatasaray Istanbul. The fans of Fenerbahce or Besiktas do not light up when they see me; nevertheless, there is an acknowledgment, a sign of respect. We know each other—there is mutual understanding, there is a history we share.” And that history has a name: Gheorghe Hagi, the man who is perhaps one of the most, if not the most, beloved player who ever stepped on Galatasaray’s pitch. Hagi and I share the same nationality, Romanian. This common trait makes me very likeable among the Turks, and so, whenever I meet Galatasaray fans, the joy on their faces is accompanied by the chant, “I love you, Hagi!”

There are perhaps many social, cultural, and even philosophical problems that can be discussed by looking at the role Hagi played in the history of Turkish football. First, problems of identity: is Hagi a Turkish hero by adoption or rather a Romanian one by birth? Did he represent Romanian or Turkish football when he played for the colors of Galatasaray? Why is it that Romanians and Turks alike celebrated the team’s 2000 UEFA Cup win? Second, we can contemplate aspects of mimetic love and desire – I am accepted by a certain community because I come from the same nation with the one whom that community idolizes. Third, we can discuss how football is, as many describe it, our lingua franca, our common language which brings together Muslims and Christians, East and West, North and South. Perhaps a sport such as football, which expresses and manifests at a micro level the globalized state of our world, is indeed appropriate for such approaches. To some extent, all of the questions above will remain in the background of this paper, and hopefully our discussion will shed some light on them. The main focus here is however yet another aspect: the perfect fit between the culture of a team and that of a soccer player. I take it that the success that Gheorghe Hagi and Galatasaray had at the end of the 20th century is explained in part by the complementarity between the culture of Turkish football and the desire to be considered king by one of the of the most talented players of that century.

 

Historical Background

Before the last years of the twentieth century, Turkish football was not considered a power. The situation may have been connected with its humble beginnings. According to David Goldblatt, football was associated with dangerous Western ideas at the end of 19th century. Thus, the game was first played “among the British commercial community in Izmir” (Goldblatt, 2008: 168). Football was just too foreign to Turkish culture and could not be adopted. Goldblatt mentions various theological reasons why the sultanate could not accept the new game for the entire population. Here are two of them: “First it was claimed that football would keep students away from their studies and their Koran. More worryingly, the wearing of shorts and the display of naked flesh was deemed too salacious” (Goldblatt, 2008: 169). Still, the game caught on, especially with the “young highly educated urban Turks,” and the great teams of Istanbul, Besiktas, Fenerbahce, and Galatasaray were founded in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Football was still a Western implant that did not fully find its natural being on Turkish soil. At the outskirts of Europe and not developed economically to the level of the West, Turkey could not compete with the world’s soccer powers for almost the entire 20th century. For a country developed on a former empire, this was not an easy thing to accept. During all this period of time, the national team qualified only once for a World Cup, in 1954. 42 years had to pass before Turkey qualified for another major final tournament, the Euro 1996, where “it didn’t score a goal or register a point” (Kuper and Szymanski, 2009: 299).

1996 was the moment when, after two years at F.C. Barcelona, Romanian footballer Gheorghe Hagi signed for Galatasaray Istanbul. Hagi was already considered one of the most talented players of his time. If he shined playing in the national team of Romania, especially during the 1994 World Cup, his performances at the club level were never as impressive, be it during his years at Real Madrid (1990-1992), Brescia Calcio (1992-1994), or Barcelona (1994-1996). Many considered his transfer to Galatasaray the sign that his career was approaching its sunset. As we saw, it was a time when Turkish football did not have the recognition it has today. In fact, according to Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, “from 1980 through 2001, Turkey was the second-worst underperformer in European soccer. It scored a full goal per game fewer than it should have done given its vast population, decent experience in international soccer, and admittedly low incomes” (Kuper and Szymanski, 2009: 298). The statistics refer to national teams, not to clubs, but still, a soccer star does not often choose to move in a country where he would not be guaranteed international notoriety, and Turkish clubs were not known as performers either. Hagi was 31 years old. His recent two seasons playing for Barcelona had not been among his best. In the Spanish league, he only appeared for about half of the games and scored seven goals, perhaps one of the weakest performances of his career[1]. However, the transition to Galatasaray proved salutary for both him and Turkish soccer. From the beginning, it seemed that Hagi did not need time to adjust to a new style of playing. After two games, he had already scored three goals, almost half as many as he did for Barcelona in two seasons of La Liga. In 2000, Galatasaray won the UEFA Cup against Arsenal and the European Super Cup against Real Madrid. These performances are yet to be attained by any other Turkish team. In 2001, at the end of his career and after five years at Galatasaray, Gheorghe Hagi had scored 71 goals in 191 games for the Istanbul team. His final game was moving for all in the audience. The fans prepared a special banner: “HAGI, we will never forget you!”

 

Discussion

There are two surprising facts here, one of them at the individual level, the other at a collective level. First, great fame and successes in football are usually attained in the early ages of one’s career. Consider Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, or Del Piero, not to mention Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo who were already famous in their early 20s. Each of these players reached the peak of their glories before they were 30. Hagi came at Galatasaray when he was 31 and was already 35 years old in the year of Galata’s great success. Second, at the beginning of the 1999-2000 European season, few if any would have bet for a success of the Turkish team. These two successes are certainly connected. I think the explanation can be found in the compatibility between the Turkish paternalist culture and Hagi’s individual style of play. Hagi could play his best football only in a team that was constructed to support his genius. Galata breathed football in the Hagi style. In other words, Hagi played for a team that was built according to the role that he himself thought he had on the pitch—that of a Sultan who needed his janissaries[2]. Fatih Terim, the renowned Turkish coach, himself nick-named the Emperor by the Galata fans, built a team in which young, talented Turkish players were on the pitch by the Sultan. The team needed four years to reach maturity before obtaining the European performance mentioned above.

The Turkish success is similar to other sporadic Eastern European successes. In a competition where the usual winners are the highly organized clubs of the West, all victories coming from east of the former Berlin Wall are a matter of surprise. In the case of Galatasaray, the success is explained by the fortuitous match between Gheorghe Hagi, the team’s most exponent player, and the club’s culture. This fit was given by two factors: first, by what I would call the “Sultan culture,” and second by a complex of second-class citizens of Europe shared among the countries of the East. In what follows I will analyze each of these two factors.

 

The Sultan Culture

In football, the chemistry between the members of a team is certainly important. This means that a football team needs to function as an organism in order to obtain good results. It is never enough to have the best eleven players in the world play together. They need to be organized according to one principle, one philosophy. From this perspective, the relationship between the part and the whole, that is, the relationship between an individual player and a team needs always be one of belonging.

Coaches always emphasize the importance of the team’s structure – we win as a team, we lose as a team – and players are familiarized with such discourses even since their early experiences with football. The focus on the unity or wholeness of the club-organism is found even in the public discourses of players. Think of a cliché such as this, “my goal today was not important; the team’s win is important.” Or, “it does not matter where I play – it is the coach’s decision, and my job is to put myself in the service of the team.” There is perhaps no Sunday without such phrases uttered by one of the thousand of footballers all around.

When such unity is achieved, spectacular results can take place. I think it is the explanation for another success coming from Eastern Europe, Steaua Bucharest, who won the European Champions Cup (the former Champions League) in 1996 with a very organized game. Jonathan Wilson cites Ștefan Iovan, one of Steaua’s defenders, who says, “Each of us knew exactly our jobs, and we had such a perfect idea of where to pass the ball that if the coach had asked us to play with our eyes closed  we could have put the ball where we needed to… We were like a perfect car” (Wilson, 2006: 209). Still Wilson recollects that “Arie Haan, the great Dutch player whose Anderlecht side were hammered 3-0 in Bucharest in the second leg of the semi-final, said he had never seen a side play with such a rhythm” (Wilson, 2006: 209).

Steaua’s success in Europe was surprising, but the team, which also transferred Hagi soon after winning the cup, reached the semifinals in 1988 and the final in 1989. The team continued to have the same philosophy of play, continued by Anghel Iordănescu, who became the main coach after being the assistant coach in the European Cup season. Of course, it is always the coach’s job to make all players on a team act and play together. But the problem is that these players have radically individual ways of playing the game. These differences are determined by several factors—the amount and quality of training during early age, the constitution of their bodies, but also, most importantly, the culture in which they grew up. It is one of the characteristics of soccer that the styles of play are connected with the nationality of the teams. Players and observers of the phenomenon alike agree with this claim. Gianlucca Vialli, for example, the Italian who spent his last years as a footballer at Chelsea, says that “Climate, culture, social class, economic conditions, all play their part. They divide the footballing world – but that is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it enriches us. Without it, there would be no ‘Italian football’, ‘English football’ or ‘Brazilian football.’” (Vialli and Marcotti, 2006: 18).

In a globalized world, with teams constituted by players who come from all over the world, such perspective may be obsolete. Nevertheless, in the Premier League we still see English football and in the Bundesliga German football. I think the explanation is given by the dialectic between individuality and universality that is played at two levels: that of an individual player and that of an individual team. At the level of the individual player, as Vialli acknowledges, people grow up in diverse countries, with different economical conditions, different climates, and so their bodies are going to be formed depending on the economical status of their own countries and, of course, of their own families[3]. It is this “material” that comes to be shaped in a footballer by the several coaches a player has during his or her career. Materially speaking, coaches deal with bodies that are determined by accountable, economical factors.

But a player is not only a body with physical characteristics. A player is also a human that grows up in a culture which determines his or her general attitude toward life. When they step on the football pitch, footballers do not leave their lives at home, but they take all these aspects with them. What this means is that the coaches need to organize the team not only abstractly, but also to apply their theoretical understanding of the game to the reality of the human matter they deal with. The strong emphasis on the fact that a coach should decide on a transfer, and not the owner, who pays the transfer fees and makes sure that the player is paid, finds its explanation here. Football is not a computer game. One cannot make a footballer play on any position, but rather adapt the system to the human material one has[4].

In such a context, it is very important what kind of players one chooses. On the one hand, coaches want to choose players who can play the part they will be assigned on a team. On the other hand, they also want players who would fit culturally and so would get along with their colleagues[5]. A football team is not only the putting together of eleven players, just as an orchestra is not the mere assembly of musicians. One needs to have a philosophy, an idea, and such idea is instilled by the coach (the conductor). Consider the A.C. Milan of Ariggo Sacchi or the F.C. Barcelona of Guardiola. They are certainly the teams of Milan and Barcelona, respectively, but also, in a particular way, the teams of the two coaches who fashioned them according to clear principles. At their turn, these coaches are themselves products of schools of football, and so combine the uniqueness of their particularity with the ethos of their cultures.

It becomes clear why the question of the match between the culture of an individual player and that of the club for which he signs is difficult and involves, as I mentioned, several levels of identity. But let us focus for the moment on that which players, coaches, and especially fans call the spirit of a team. Regardless of the human component over the ages, fans perceive one team as being that of a certain coach only in a limited sense. Consider Galatasaray: The 1996-2000 period, perhaps one of the most glorious period both on the national and international levels, was that of Fatih Terim’s and Gheorghe Hagi’s Galatasaray. For fans such a period actually signifies the moment in which the team reached its full potential. Thus, after successes of this nature, the identity of the team, that is, the team as it is represented in their hearts, is the winning team of the end of the 20th century. In comparison, during the 2010-2011 season, when Galatasaray did not perform to the level it accustomed its fans, newspapers claimed not only that players no longer had the quality of former stars, but also that they did not understand what Galata means – they did not understand the spirit of the team. Gheorghe Hagi’s comeback as coach in the fall of 2010 was seen as the sign that the former glory may return. People thought that Hagi would bring back with him the spirit of the winner[6].

Although usually connected with the period of the highest achievement, the spirit of a team is a much more complicated concept and depends on more than one variables: history, the social structure of the neighborhood in which it was established, past heroes, fans, and most importantly the education instilled in the club’s youth programs. When a player is transferred, he not only needs to understand what the coach desires of him on the pitch, but also to take at heart a whole philosophy. If we were to think again at Barcelona, Ibrahimovic’s example says much about this difficulty. Ibrahimovic is still one of the fuoriclasse, as the Italians call them, but his experience at Barcelona was a fiasco because he could not adapt to the team’s culture. It is almost as if a doctor would perform a transplant of an organ that does not match the receiver. And so, the moment of any transfer, but especially for international transfers, clubs need to take into consideration not only whether a player has great skills, but also whether he would adapt well to the philosophy of the team[7].

The connection between a great player and the culture of a team allowed for the success of the Galatasaray of the end of the 20th century. This does not mean, of course, that this factor is the only one responsible for the result. As in any other field, success is usually explained by various elements. Some believe, for example, that economical and political facts are the main variables that explain the rise of a team. Cem Emrence, for example, believes that “spatial and social inequalities in Turkey that accelerated with globalization were crucial for the team’s success in Europe.” Then, Emrence says, “as certain cities have become nodes in the new spatial setting of the global economy, the club management of Galatasaray exploited the position of Istanbul as a financial center, borrowing heavily from globally connected local banks to finance the building of a strong squad that put the team on an equal ground with its European rivals” (Emrence, 2007: 630). To be sure, financial power is important in football. In order to be able to make the transfers the club needs, there must be money available. My focus on the cultural aspects of forming a team does not deny Emrence’s view, but rather shows that financial power is not equal with success if money is not invested by respecting a culture and following a philosophy.

Kuper and Szymanski also think that Turkish football was saved by globalization, but they explain this in different tones. They believe that cultural differences are not important and that international success requires following international rules. It is not an individual style that can ever have success in the long run, but the combinations of those styles. They think that the success of the football periphery is explained by the adoption of styles that have no connection with their tradition. For them,

Turks came to the realization that every marginal country needs: there is only one way to play good soccer – you combine Italian defending with German work ethic and Dutch passing into the European style. (“Industrial soccer,” some Turks sulkily call it.) In soccer, national styles don’t work. You have to have all the different elements. You cannot win international matches playing traditional Turkish soccer. You need to play continental European soccer (Kuper and Szymanski, 2009: 299).

Kuper’s and Szymanski’s analysis suffers precisely in diminishing the cultural aspect. If we look at the Galatasaray team of the end of the century, it was not an “industrial soccer” that the fans saw on the pitch. Instead, it was rather a football orchestrated around a soloist, Gheorghe Hagi, with fast, skilled, talented young Turkish players making runs for his passes or opening the field for his dribblings. I mentioned above Gianlucca Vialli’s division of football in accordance with culture. If there is a model that would define Turkish football, perhaps it would be that of paternalism. In a culture in which authority is important, football seems to follow a similar pattern: to be listened, the coaches need to be authoritarian. Fatih Terim, Galatasaray’s coach in the period mentioned, did not gain his nickname of the Emperor for nothing. In this context, the voice of the authority figure is more important than the authority of the law itself. Players follow the rule imposed by a personal entity, and not by an impersonal club. This authority from the bench needed its match on the field, and Hagi played this role[8].

Kuper’s and Szymanski’s analysis needs adjusting from another perspective as well, still connected with culture. While it is true that the ascension of the team coincides with the transfers of renowned foreign players, the Romanians Gheorghe Hagi and Gheorghe Popescu and the Brazilian goalie Cláudio Taffarel, we should emphasize that none of them were brought up in Western cultures. It is not a Westerner star who is perceived as “the best foreign player ever to play in Turkey,” but a man from the East, brought up in a similar paternalist culture and scarred, perhaps, with the same doubts and desires to be considered a citizen of equal worth by the economically stronger people of the West. The Turks’ and Hagi’s common Balkan culture allowed for a rapid assimilation of the player in the team. The perfect fit that seemed evident from the first games at Galatasaray is in striking contrast with the period he spent at Barcelona. Explanations can be found perhaps in many aspects of the game, but I think one the most important is the cultural aspect. Hagi grew up in Romania, an Eastern European country in which submission to authority felt natural. While the public communist discourse always emphasized equality, the every day reality accustomed Romanians to bow to those perceived to be in power. In Hagi’s case, his power came from sheer talent. From his youth, Hagi was used to play on a team that depended on his genius. Accustomed to play as the leader on the field, to have the freedom that such a leader usually has, Hagi had difficulties once he was transferred in the West. While his talent always showed up, in a strictly organized structure Hagi was no longer Hagi. One only needs to compare the period Hagi spent at Barcelona with the one at Galatasaray. At the Catalan team, Hagi was one of the many fuoriclasse. At Galatasaray, he was the fuoriclasse. Hagi’s soul needed such a team, where the philosophy of the game was constructed around his name and his genius. In a 2011 interview for the Romanian newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor, Hagi said, “I was always preoccupied to do everything in my power to be the best, to be important in the group” (Tudorache, 2011). At Galatasaray, he was transferred as the most important player, and Hagi kept doing everything in his power to prove and maintain his status.

Galatarasay’s players themselves needed a Hagi. Formed primarily of young, talented Turkish players, Galatasaray needed a mentor on the field. Turkish culture accepts authority as well as the Romanian one. Furthermore, it also needs heroes, legendary figures. Hagi came for the team and the fans at the right moment. He contributed to a European adventure that many saw, as Cem Emrence puts it, “the ultimate arena to voice the aspirations of upper classes to be part of Europe (a Union) as the team was expected to prove to Europeans on the pitch that the ‘Turks’ should be accepted as equals and even a ‘key’ member in the European family (Kozanoǧlu 119–22; Stokes 11)” (Emrence, 2007: 631).

 

A Complex of Second-Class Citizens

I have already mentioned that it is remarkable that the hero of Turkish soccer is not a Westerner, but an Easterner. Perhaps the connection between Hagi and Galatasaray is explained by an odd common history and a common way of understanding authority. Romanians and Turks shared a common complex of inferiority in the 90s—they did not feel they existed for the West. In his The Ball Is Round: A Global History of soccer, David Goldblatt comments, “The familiar Turkish lament that ‘we do not exist beyond Edirne’—the most westerly city in the country—applied to football too. Progress in European competition provided the most cherished measure of success, but the encounter was always shot through with a paranoid insecurity” (David Goldblatt, 2008: 759). Romanians had a similar attitude after the fall of communism in 1989. Acknowledging a radical difference between the economical situations of their own country and the West, Romanians had the same desire to prove that there is nothing inferior about their culture. At times, this desire gave birth to an ambition that wanted to surpass the others in quality. Gheorghe Hagi was raised with such a mentality. Hagi was a genius with collectivist attitudes. Playing for six years in the West (between Steaua Bucharest, his last Romanian team, and Galatasaray, he played for Real Madrid, Brescia, and F.C Barcelona, two years each), Hagi was well respected wherever he went. However, he never proved his superiority. Perhaps his individual awareness of his own genius never nourished the “paranoid insecurity,” as Goldblatt calls is, but his national ethos always did. Perceiving themselves as abandoned by the Western societies after World War II, often perceived by the West as the “incapable communists,” Romanians engaged in a popular discourse that emphasized the superiority in power manifested by Western teams, both off and on the pitch. Brought up in such culture, Hagi found another point of connection with Turkish football.

Much of the complex of inferiority that the East has when faced with the West may be explained by the economic situation of the two sides of Europe. The success of a team in a European competition could prove that the Turks can compete as a nation at a table where they had not been fully received. With the exception of North America, where the main sports are still baseball and American football, football gained supremacy everywhere, becoming the national game. Nowadays, football is the sport that stirs up national feelings. In the words of John Foster, “Football, more than any other sport, assumes this special status as the national game. And since it’s the national game it’s a matter of national identity” (Foster, 2010: 254). It is no surprise, then, that through the experience of Galatasaray in the European competition Turks saw the success of their own nation—and Romanians joined them in this feeling.

Such a victory may seem insignificant for some. After all, we talk about a sport, not about an economical, cultural, or scientific achievement. But whoever understands (better said, “loves”) football will be quick to tell you that “football is more than just football.” Perhaps it is a cliché, but it is certainly true in connection with Galatasaray’s victory in the 2000 UEFA Cup. Football is not just a game in which 22 players run after a ball according to minimal rules. Football can be a story of redemption; can be a story of historical wins or losses; can be a story of passions brought to the status of laws. Perhaps more than anything else, football can be a story of historical reconciliation. During the 1999-2000 season, football was each one of these things for the Turks. First, it was the occasion to show the West that the Turks can compete at the same level with them. For cultures that have not known historical humiliations, these feelings may be foreign, but they are very familiar to people who, at one time or another in their history, were considered too different (perhaps inferior) for being accepted with the others. The long and controversial discussions about the acceptance of Turkey in the European Union are well known. The “Question of Turkey,” as it is named even in European barometers, has been bound to produce cultural attitudes that go beyond the strict requirements that an institution may have when it accepts new members. For the nation that is “verified,” the usual resentments are connected with a complex of inferiority. As for the population in the Union, the general attitude goes against the acceptance of Turkey. But the numbers are interesting. In a Eurobarometer published in 2006 by the European Commission, just prior to the acceptance of Romania in the UE, 61% of the European Union citizens agreed that the cultural difference between Turkey and the EU Member States are too significant to allow it to join the EU. In comparison, only 32% of Romanians responded positively to the same question. The difference between Romania and the next country on the list, Spain, with 46% is significant (European Commission, Eurobarometer, september 2007).

The eurobarometer may not fully explain the attitudes that Romanians have regarding the Turks. The Romanians’ different response may be connected with their geographical proximity and the common Balkan culture. However, Bulgaria, more Balkan geographically than Romania and in the same political situation regarding the European Union, does not share the same positivity Romanians have for the Turkish culture. Then, if we look at history, the results of the survey are even more surprising. Romanians and Turks have centuries of fighting against each other. It was only in 1877 that Romania proclaimed its independence from the Ottoman Empire, and this independence was won after a long war. But the memory of people is a strange thing. The barometer came only 5 years after a stadium full of Turks chanted “I love you, Hagi.” It was also only one year after Romanians followed again very closely what Hagi was doing as the coach of the Turkish team Galatasaray. During the first decade of the 21st century Romanian football had no accomplishments, so Romanians were living vicariously through the Turkish team that was led by a Romanian. The same complex of a nation that was not accepted for a long time in the EU, for different reasons than Turkey, was lived by Romanians as well. Indeed, centuries of history, religion, and culture separate Romania and Turkey.  Football brings them together. A footballer brought joy to both nations at the same time, which gave them a reason to bond. Even more, by winning a European Cup against a Western team, Hagi helped the two nations to overthrow, even if temporary, the complex of Eastern Europeans and Turks as second class citizens of Europe.

 

Conclusion

The last years have brought many changes in football. Becoming more and more a business, football entered an era where poetry no longer has a place. Success is insured by good business plans and by fully structured teams that diminish the possibility of surprises. The time where players could decide a game by a beautiful pass or shot on goal is rapidly approaching its sunset. Of course, we still have a Leo Messi or a Cristiano Ronaldo, but if we consider the weak results they have for their national teams, once they no longer play in their club structure, we see that good organizations always take precedence over individual geniuses. From time to time, however, there is such a connection between a formidable player and one team that overthrows all statistics and that shows that economical numbers, when connected with soccer, with something as alive as soccer is, pale in comparison with culture. I think the Galatasaray phenomenon at the end of the century is such an example that shows that the statement, “in soccer, ‘culture’ doesn’t matter much” is false. Kuper and Szymanski have the opposite opinion, pointing for this still to the experience of Turkey:

Perhaps, as the former French president Giscard d’Estaing said when he drafted the European Union’s failed constitution, Turkey had a “different culture, a different approach, a different way of life,” but it didn’t stop the Turks in soccer. Cultures are not eternal and unalterable. When they have an incentive to change – like the prospect of winning more soccer matches, or perhaps the prospect of getting richer – they can change (Kuper and Szymanski, 2009: 299).

But the strong success of Turkish teams at the beginning of the 21st century stopped and not developed, as Kuper and Szymanski believed. I think this shows that success is much more connected with culture than we may be inclined to believe. The Galatasaray experience proves so. The Turks won precisely because they remained who they were and they embraced fully their way of being. They won because they did not adopt a completely western approach of playing soccer, but rather a Balkan way, in which a sultan yells, screams, has perhaps unorthodox gestures on the field, but leads them to victory[9]. Mircea Lucescu, who was to be Hagi’s coach in his last year, after the UEFA Cup win, said these words:

I then realized what Hagi meant for Turkish football. He provoked many ambitions. The four titles he won prior to my coming and then the fifth with me are, I think, mostly due to his presence in that team. He was catalyzing; he was charismatic, he was hungry for success. Of course, he was the same player in the national team, the player who was taking the others after him, who never accepted things half-done, who, even beyond the presence of the coach, did not allow the players to do things that were detrimental to performance. The fact that he was named the King of football and Sultan in Turkey is the supreme argument of his value. This name came from the heart of the people, from their passion for football, and from the extraordinary respect they had toward a man who was never shamed on the football pitch (Lucescu, apud Hagi, vol.2, Cluburile, DVD, 2009).

It is such a player, a charismatic character, that a football which had not reached the levels of organization of the West needed. Football is “the beautiful game” also because is accepts different philosophies. Some of them, even if they are considered marginal, can triumph at moments when they assume their identity and when they found players in which this identity can be incarnated. This suggests that it is not only one type of culture that can be successful, but rather a culture that assumes its own identity while being open to communication with others.

 

References

EMRENCE, Cem, 2007, “Playing with Global City: The Rise and Fall of a Turkish Soccer Team”, The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 40.4: 630-42.

EUROPEAN COMMISSION, 2007, Standard Eurobarometer 66, European Commission Public Opinion,  http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/eb/eb66/eb66_en.htm

FOSTER, John, 2010, “Tell Me How You Play and I’ll Tell You Who You Are”, in RICHARDS, Ted (ed.), Soccer and Philosophy: Beautiful Thoughts on the Beautiful Game, Chicago: Open Court, 253-264.

GHEORGHE HAGI FOUNDATION, 2009, Hagi, Vol. 2. Cluburile, DVD.

GOLDBLATT, David, 2008, The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer. New York: Riverhead Books.

KUPER, Simon, SZYMANSKI, Stefan, 2009, Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey – and Even Iraq – Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport. New York: Naion Groups.

TUDORACHE, Viorel, 2011, “Gazeta l-a vizitat pe Hagi. Ce spune Regele despre Academie si care crede ca a fost eroarea lui Sandu.” Gazeta Sporturilor, December 4.

VIALLI, Gianluca, MARCOTTI, Gabriele, 2006, The Italian Job: A Journey to the Heart of Two Great Footballing Cultures. London: Bantam Books.

WILSON, Jonathan, 2006, Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football. London: Orion Books.

 

[1] Hagi started his senior career in 1982, for Farul Constanta, in Romania. He played for six other teams, Sportul Studentesc, Steaua Bucharest, Real Madrid, Brescia, Barcelona, and Galatasaray.

[2] In the Ottoman army, the janissaries were the elite corps of the sultan.

[3] Kuper and Szymanski show that the economical status of a country plays an important role in success in football. Considering South Africa, they observe that the majority of the players representing this country in the 2010 World Cup “were born in nonwhite townships in the 1980s. And so the ghost of apartheid will bug the Bafana at the World Cup. One reason South African are so bad at soccer is that most of them didn’t get enough good food” (266).

[4] The success of F.C. Barcelona, at the club level, and Spain, at the national teams level, is based, I believe, on education and on the implementation of a system of values from early youth. The skeleton of both teams is formed by players who grew together in the famous La Masia, Barcelona’s youth academy, and who were formed in a style of play that is used both by the club and the national team.

[5] The same Gheorghe Hagi communicated that he decided to reject any coaching offer from any team that come during the season. He explained this decision by pointing out that he wanted to feel fully responsible for the team and to work with the material (and the team) that he constructed. Since a coach organizes a team according to his philosophy, it is difficult for another one to implement his own philosophy on a body already formed according to other principles.

[6] Hagi had to quit after a few months, not being able to redress the sinking boat of Galatasaray.

[7] In an interview offered to a class I taught at Bradley University, Gica Popescu, famous Romanian defender who was captain of F.C. Barcelona before he transferred to Galatasaray to win UEFA Cup, emphasized the professionalism with which Western football clubs treated new players. The clubs hired tutors and took care of players’lives in the smallest details so that they could focus only on football.

[8] When asked who were his favorite coaches, the same Gica Popescu said in the class I mentioned above: “First place, Cruyff, second place, Cruyff, third place, Cruyf.” Asked to explain his coach, Gica Popescu said, and I paraphrase: Johan Cruyff could enter into the changing room, holding a piece of blank paper. If he told us it was a black piece of paper, we would have looked twice at it, this is how much we trusted him and this is the authority he had over us.

[9] Hagi was red carded several times in Turkey for yelling at a referee. Such behavior would be completely unaccepted by a Western club, with much more radical rules about behavior.